March 12, 2003

Clifford the Big Red Water Treatment Problem

There’s the famous old observation about Pluto and Goofy, about how weird the rules of anthropomorphism in the Disney universe are. Pluto is a dog and Goofy is a kind-of-dog, but one is a dog-dog and the other a master-dog, except that the dog-dog also has a kind of sentience as well, at a sort of sub-Scooby Doo level.

I’ve been adding to my personal file of similar observations a lot lately, watching children’s television and reading children's stories with my 2-year old daughter. Here’s the latest bunch.

1. Doesn’t Clifford the Big Red Dog create a serious sanitation problem for that oh-so-perfect little island town he lives in? Weren’t the villagers actually correct to object to his arrival for that very reason? Who is paying for the not-inconsiderable costs of cleaning up after him? And how exactly do they do it, anyway?

2. On the same subject, Clifford the Big Red Dog got big because Emily Elizabeth loved him so much, not because he is a mutant or freak. Doesn’t that mean that all other dogs in the world are not loved nearly so well? Shouldn’t every other dog feel sad at being so relatively unloved that they remain their natural size?

3. Why doesn’t the wolf eat Little Red Riding Hood the first time he meets her in the forest and asks her where she’s going? Why go through all the folderol of dressing up as grandma?

4. What the hell is up with the world Little Bear lives in? It’s animal-anthropomorphic except that there are humans in it, too. The animals don’t behave like animals at all sometimes and other times behave perfectly like their source species. For example, Father Bear fishes with a fishing pole while wearing a suit, but his brother Rusty fishes by swiping at the fish with a paw and throwing them up on the river bank. The animals are a really weird mix: they live in what looks like a European or North American forested area with mountains in the distance, but they run the gamut from domesticated animals to wild animals that belong in that environment to wildly out of place animals like a monkey. At least a show like Oswald or Maggie and the Ferocious Beast is consistently whimsical.

5. Where are Max and Ruby’s parents? They have a grandmother who has come to visit them at least once. There is never even a hint that they have a mother or a father.

6. What are the rules governing monster genetics on Sesame Street? Do monsters have parents that look somewhat like themselves, or completely different? Are grouches monsters, or something else entirely? It doesn’t help matters that the parents of some monsters like Elmo have been visualized differently on different occasions or in different media.

7. I was stunned to find out in one episode that Bing and Bong of Tiny Planets are friends, not father and child. So what’s up with these two? One hates to pull a Bert-and-Ernie-are-gay at the drop of a hat, but…

8. Speaking of Bert and Ernie, the “Journey to Ernie” segment that appears in current runs of Sesame Street is a pretty devastating confirmation of Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis that Blue’s Clues has displaced Sesame Street as the template for educational television. It’s like a really bad version of Blue’s Clues. More importantly, Ernie cheats. Poor Big Bird has no real chance of finding Ernie before the third box, even though he ought to have a chance, judging from the apparent rules of the game. At least with Blue’s Clues, the rules make sense: no guessing before finding the final clue.

9. What's with Caillou being bald? And why are US toymakers reluctant to show him being bald? It’s really hard to find a Caillou toy where he’s allowed to be bald like on the show: they always give him a hat or put soap bubbles on his head or some such.

10. What is the deal with the character Sarah Phillips on the show Liberty’s Kids? She’s a loyal Tory monarchist who also believes passionately in equal rights for all people. Er, right. (The whole show is history-by-committee: it not only manages to indulge in excrutiatingly calculated kinds of inoffensiveness but also manages to make the American Revolution even duller than it is in school textbooks.)